As I do every Christmas season, I took time one December evening to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. As many times as I have seen it, I always find something new. Do you remember that pivotal scene where frustrated, stymied George is encouraged by his mom to walk down to lovely Mary’s house? What does he do? He heads the other direction, toward town. He issues an invitation to a very different kind of girl to go hike in the woods and climb a mountain and take in a sunrise. Mary would have leaped at the invitation; this girl ridicules and rejects it. So, George finally appears outside Mary’s house, almost against his conscious will, and enters at her invitation with visible reluctance. He proceeds to make his discomfort so painfully palpable that their conversation ends abruptly, and he is actually out the door when his old friend and romantic rival Sam Wainwright calls for Mary. Mary ingenuously puts George on the phone to speak to Sam, and Sam alerts George to a great business opportunity. George actually aids Sam with a wise suggestion, but when Sam follows George’s suggestion with a job opportunity that will make him rich, offering him the “chance of a lifetime” to abandon the old Savings and Loan and become wealthy, George finds himself rejecting the offer. In the next moment he finds himself embracing and kissing passionately the woman he loves, yet whose love he has resisted because she, like the Savings and Loan, represents one more chaining encumbrance to mire him forever in Bedford Falls. What is going on here? The profound truth about George Bailey is that what he thought he wanted to do with his life was travel the world and design great buildings as an architect and leave the dreary dust of Bedford Falls far behind. But in that climactic moment he realizes that what he really wants to do is follow in the footsteps of his compassionate father and provide decent housing for the poor, while winning subtle wars with Potter to keep his community a healthy place and nurturing friendships that have taken decades to forge, and raising a family with a beautiful woman who wants nothing more than to live and die in the town where they were born. What George Bailey thought he wanted was one thing; what he really wanted was something else.
That extraordinary simple yet profound scene testifies to the fact that human beings are strange and contradictory creatures. If George Bailey’s behavior is Exhibit A of this fact, I offer myself as Exhibit B. Like many of you, I enjoyed a host of gustatory delights over the holidays, which is to say, I ate a host of things that weren’t good for me, but really tasted good. So I entered January, as I always do, dedicated to a much stricter dietary regimen. And the truth is, I can be very disciplined – for a limited period of time. But then I spied a jar of peanut brittle on the counter, and I realized that it was calling my name. Now I knew at a conscious level that harkening to the call of the peanut brittle ran exactly counter to what I was sure I wanted – to be disciplined in my January eating. I knew, at least on the conscious level, that all I needed to do in response to the peanut brittle’s siren song was to walk the opposite direction. But instead, I moved toward the peanut brittle with the confident assurance, ‘Well, one little bite of peanut brittle won’t hurt.’ But then I selected a large piece of peanut brittle and took one “little bite,” and then another “little bite,” and then another, until I could declare with a memorable commercial from yesteryear, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” Sure, my conscious mind told me that what I wanted was to eat healthy stuff. But stronger, unconscious forces were at work. In reality, I was driven by a subconscious yearning to enjoy another day of eating peanut brittle. This subterranean, unconscious desire was the one that guided my actions. You might say that my behavior was undisciplined and illogical – and I agree. But can you honestly tell me that you never experience a disparity in your life between what you think you want and what you really desire?
This contradiction that exists deep within us between what we think we want and what we really want can have negative implications, as was the case with me, or have positive implications, as was the case with George Bailey. Indeed, the Scriptural text we have before us attests that in fact this contradiction can be wondrously positive. It is precisely this contradiction between what we think we want and what we really want that helps us understand the behavior of the four young men whom Jesus recruited to his service one fateful day. John the Baptist had just been arrested, bringing his public ministry to an abrupt end, when suddenly Jesus came forth saying, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” He saw two brothers throwing their net into the sea, and he issued this direct command and promise: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” They jumped out of their boats and followed. Then he walked a little farther around the lake and saw another set of brothers mending their nets and said to them, “Follow me,” and they left their father in the boat and dropped their nets and joined Jesus’ small entourage. What is going on here? Start with this fact: we can be sure that this is not the first time these men have laid eyes on Jesus. Galilee was too small a place for them not to know of Jesus and vice-versa. One can even surmise that Jesus had perhaps alerted these acquaintances sometime earlier that the day was coming when he would need their help in sharing God’s Good News. Perhaps on those previous occasions they had told him bluntly, ‘No, we are perfectly happy catching fish.’ Or maybe, just to get rid him, they had told him in a noncommittal tone that they would ‘think about’ his offer. But all the while they were really thinking, ‘All we want to do is be left alone to be fishers of fish.’ Even if Jesus’ offer had a certain mysterious appeal, they knew themselves to be simple fishermen, not spiritual giants. Yet one day Jesus summoned, “Follow me!” and these four men leaped to answer the call to divine service, because while what they thought they wanted was to spend their lives catching fish, at a subterranean, subconscious level, what they really wanted was to be fishers of people. So, when Jesus issued a word of recruitment, they follow without hesitation. What they thought they wanted was one thing, but burning in their hearts was a deeper desire, and by their actions they proved it.
Let me hasten to add, we must not give these four fishermen more credit than they deserve. When they threw down their nets and answered Jesus’ call to “Follow me,” they didn’t know they were risking arrest and oppressive opposition and martyrdom. They didn’t know they were starting a spiritual movement that would change the course of human history. They didn’t know they were starting a process where news of God’s love would be taken to every corner of the world. Truth is, they had no real idea of what being a “fisher of people” entailed. All they knew that was to follow Jesus was to follow his path step by step away from the nets and the boats they knew so well. They could not envision a “future future.” All they knew was that Jesus represented for them the “present future.” They knew that to follow in Jesus’ footsteps away from those boats meant that they would be living a different kind of life. But by following Jesus in the “present future,” these men were trusting Jesus to lead them into a “future future” beyond their envisioning. They knew that trusting him with their lives meant embarking on a new and incredibly meaningful way to live.
We do much the same thing in our own lives. No medical student on his/her first day of med school has any idea of the kind of life that he/she is being called to live. No law student who steps into that law school lecture hall on the first day of class has any idea of the nature of existence he/she is being summoned to experience. No couple who stands at an altar and promises, “I will love you for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and health, and will cherish you all days of my life,” has any concrete grasp of what those heroic promises entail. Most of the truly definitive pilgrimages on which we embark entail a long step-by-step process from the known into the unknown. When Emma Terry and Bo Terry emerged from the baptismal waters a couple of weeks ago, they did so not knowing where their faith may ultimately lead them and how their faith will evolve They simply trusted Jesus with their “present future,” believing that Christ will lead them into a fruitful “future future.”
Ponder Jesus’ words again: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” Do you realize that these few words signal the changing of the whole narrative of history? As long as Jesus was a solitary voice, shining a solitary light, his impact, even as the Christ, was limited. But when these four young men committed their lives unto him, suddenly his solitary voice morphed into a movement. Suddenly his light was not limited to his own life, but could shine through the lives of these young men and the lives that they recruited to his movement. When they threw down those nets and left those boats the disciples didn’t know that they were changing history – but they DID know that they were changing their histories — they were transforming themselves. In leaping out of those boats and dropping those nets they knew they were going to become different kinds of people, living different kinds of lives that what they had done heretofore.
They also knew that answering Jesus’ call required complete commitment. It involved an abrupt change of orientation. Answering Jesus’ call meant that they were “all in.” They couldn’t say to Jesus, ‘Yeah, we’ll follow you,’ then keep casting their nets into the sea. Their change of lifestyle was abrupt and dramatic. There could be no carrying an extra net with them as they journeyed with which to continue practicing their cast. To answer the call of Jesus, “Follow me,” required a wholesale change of orientation.
To what degree do you and I, in answer to Christ’s summons, “Follow me,” need to make changes in our lives that require a wholesale change of orientation? How many of us are willing to be “all in” in our discipleship of Jesus Christ? Do we tell ourselves, ‘I want to be a servant of Christ,’ all the while saying, ‘But there are so many other things I want to do on the weekend?’ Are our lives truly oriented around the call to be fishers of people? Are we truly “all in”? When George Bailey clasps Mary to his bosom and gives her that passionate kiss, he knows what that kiss signifies: it means he is “all in” in that relationship. There can be no more half-hearted courtship. When Jesus says to those disciples, “Follow me,” and they step out of those boats, they are “all in.” They know there can be no half-hearted courtship with the Christ. To what degree are we “all in” when Christ summons us to be fishers of people? Are we truly oriented around that call, or secretly, while we tell ourselves we want one thing, what we really want is something else entirely?
You cannot always have what you think you want and what you really want. I have a close friend who is an absolutely wonderful man, father of four children, all of whom now have children of their own. He is retired, and his stated ambition in life is to be a wonderful father and doting grandfather. But he is also a heavy smoker. I have cajoled, I have teased, I have nagged, but I have never been able to convince him to abandon that deeply-engrained habit. I have never been able to convince him that the encumbrances involved in quitting smoking are far less than the encumbrances that will follow when some doctor says to him, ‘I see something that concerns me on your lungs.’ He cannot see that the daily present encumbrances involved in quitting smoking pale in comparison with the future encumbrances involved in dealing with a serious disease. He thinks he wants to be a loving father and doting grandfather for a long time. But what he really wants is to keep being a heavy smoker. He probably can’t do both.
Don’t think of his vice as any worse than anybody else’s. Your vice might be consuming Little Debbies or cheating on your taxes or plagiarizing your English compositions off the internet — everybody has their own destructive weaknesses. The question is, Are we really all in when Jesus comes to us in our boat and commands, ‘Follow me and let me make you fishers of people.’ Angela and Leigh have devised a theme for our youth and children this year: “Deep and Wide.” They want to challenge our youth and children to focus on the twin endeavors of becoming “deeper” in their faith and “wider” in their embrace of the people of our community and the greater world. We would do well as an entire congregation to regard that theme as a worthy challenge for us all. When Christ comes to us, are we truly willing to strive to become more profound in our faith, more mature in our understanding, and are we willing to extend invitations to people to come into our fellowship who do not look like us, who do not think like us, and who do not believe like us? Are we willing to accept the fact that there is room in God’s house for those we would normally regard as strangers, even sinners? Do we really mean it when we hear the call of Christ, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people,” and we answer with our conscious mind, ‘Lord, I will give you all that I have and am’? Or do we, secretly worship a small and narrow god fashioned out of our own selfish desires, a god of our own making? These are crucial questions. And the answers really matter.